February 18, 2013

A wintertime threefer: McDonald's Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger, McFish Bites and Shamrock Shake

Quite the McBundle sits on our plate today, foodies. A road trip this weekend had me pulling into the golden arches with an empty stomach and driving out with an interesting haul in my bag.

Needless to say, it wasn't your boring old run-of-the-mill Happy Meal. I pick my food a la carte, and did I ever go a la carting! My order consisted of a Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger, Fish McBites and my favorite seasonal ice cream, a Shamrock Shake. Two of these foods are new to me, while the third needs some revisiting.

Yes, you read that right. Two of the foods are new to me. The fish and the beef.

I can hear you shouting at your computer screens now: How can this be true? How can this cheese-onion-beef contraption be new when the food critique tackled it just a few months ago? It received high marks for taste and low ones for name!

Please don't send nasty emails. At least, don't send them to me. McDonald's has two burgers that prominently feature onionage in their name. There's the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger I'm reviewing today. And then there's the much pricier Cheddar, Bacon, Onion, or CBO, which I reviewed in November.

The Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger costs a buck. The CBO will leave you out of the better part of a $10 bill. So the moral of the nomenclature appears to be that acronyms are expensive.

Speaking of exes, today's lead-in is getting a bit expansive. Especially considering what I have planned -- I'm giving you a quick few paragraphs on each of the foods from my trip to the house that Ronald built. Let's cross to the critiquing now.

Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger
Nothing would please me more than to rave about this bargain-priced burger with a mouthful of a moniker and wave my applause in the face of the tasty but pricey and ill-named CBO. Unfortunately, the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger is nowhere near as good to the mouth as its upmarket big brother.

For starters, the beef isn't up to snuff. The burger with the long name is basically a classic McDonald's hamburger with the ketchup, mustard and diced onions swapped out for a generous helping of grilled onions. Oh, the cheese gets a slight upgrade, too.

One upgrade that was missed is the moisture content. McDonald's drowns its classic burgers in condiments for a reason, and that reason is they're incredibly dry. Grilled onions don't fix this. In fact, their smoky flavor exacerbates the problem.

The saving grace is the price. Three sporks out of five. Just make sure you take some of that cash you saved and buy a drink.

Fish McBites
The little balls of fish known as Fish McBites provide an opportunity to continue my study of McDonald's naming techniques. The golden arches tags the "Mc" prefix onto sandwiches' meat, but when it comes to small chunks, the restaurant stitches it onto a shape descriptor.

Think about it. The McRib is a sandwich. Chicken McNuggets and Fish McBites are finger foods.

I'll be the first to admit that I didn't explain that particularly well. Perhaps some linguist somewhere can perform a study and publish an academic paper. In the mean time, I'll dock Fish McBites to two sporks out of five because I had trouble explaining my theory inspired by their name. Worse, they smelled far, far too fishy. And they looked like hush puppies without any of the soul-food goodness of hush puppies.

Shamrock Shake
I'm not backing down on giving this delicious green concoction poor ratings until it comes out of its ridiculously slippery plastic cup. McDonald's had the gall to serve me one with an absurd amount of whipped cream on top with an even more absurd cherry.

Bring back paper cups for milkshakes and get rid of that mess above the ice cream. McDonald's isn't a mid-century soda shop, and none of us want it to be. Zero sporks out of five.

February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day with a Milky Way heart

I love it when candy scrawls sweet nothings on its surface.
The evening may be barreling toward a close, but I wouldn't let Feb. 14 slip by without sending my loyal readers a valentine. A day inflated by big candy (for the record, I borrowed that sugary term from @SeinfeldToday on Twitter) shouldn't be passed up by any semi-serious food blogger.

Since I embody the term semi-serious, let's jump right in. This Valentine's Day has the critique taking a look at an interesting sweet tabbed the Milky Way Simply Caramel Heart. The 1.1 oz. yellow package caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I've been saving it for today.

Unwrapping reveals a molded piece of caramel-filled chocolate shaped like a two-heart tombstone with the words "Be Mine" emblazoned across the bottom. It's an attractive cocoa concoction, even if it raises an important question: Is this a Milky Way heart, as the wrapper claims, or is it Milky Way hearts?

Two distinct heart shapes are clearly visible. Yet the chocolate is a single molded smooth chunk with nary a seam to be found. Maybe we can call it a hybrid, consigning it in that hazy gray zone heretofore reserved for the age at which daughters can get their ears pierced. Maybe Milky Way should have just gone with a single-heart design, rendering this an academic discussion instead of the exceedingly practical one it's become.

Biting into the hearts -- or the "Be Mine" banner -- unleashes a river of caramel that's as free-flowing as caramel can be without causing frustrating deluges. It's sweet. It's sticky. It's a miniature version of a Milky Way Simply Caramel bar, which I called "one giant gravity well of caramel" in an April 2010 review.

That bit of self-valentining narcissistic quoting aside, I can tell you that I wasn't the biggest fan of the Milky Way Caramel bar. After about three bites the time of wine and roses ended, and the eating experience turned into a slog of sugar. It was just too much caramel.

Too much is a problem the heart version of the candy solves. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, it's about three bites. And they're an enjoyable burst of flavor.

A quick nit to pick before it's time to assign a very-special red construction-paper spork rating. The structural integrity of the Milky Way Simply Caramel Heart needs work. Upon my first bite, the entire top started caving in. My second bite tore off the remainder of that top, leaving an exposed boat filled with caramel. Things would have been better if we had more chocolate to balance it all out.

My love isn't blind to those problems, so I'll dock the heart by a spork and a half. Three-and-a-half sporks out of five.

February 10, 2013

Super Bowl rice-off

Can we call the Super Bowl rice-off the Rice Bowl? Has someone trademarked that?
Hard to believe it's been a week since the Super Bowl, isn't it? In many ways, the last seven days have been nothing but an extended blackout brought on by the overabundance of good eats on party platters for the NFL's championship game.

No matter how quickly things have gone, I find it's best to clean my plate of Super Bowl write-ups within 168 hours of the event itself. Already I fear this review is pushing the boundaries of timeliness -- the Grammys are under way as I type, for chef's sake!

As I recall, I owe you all a rice-off pitting Zatarain's against Rice-A-Roni. In my Super Bowl smorgasbord, Zatarain's represented the host city of New Orleans while Rice-A-Roni came from the corner of the eventual runner-up San Francisco 49ers. They weren't the teams competing in the big game. But that didn't stop me from seeing which one was superior.

First, let's talk about my Zatarain's. I opted for the New Orleans style jambalaya mix, as it seemed the most authentic. The box told me to add a meat of my choice, which I did with some spicy sausage.

On the Rice-A-Roni side, I chose the fried rice flavor. The San Francisco treat only suggested I add meat to make it a meal, something I declined to do. Not only did I already have a meaty Zatarain's, I wanted to compare the foods at their most basic suggested preparation.

Basically, neither of these two rices goes against the grain. Both boxed products smelled scintillatingly savory on the stove top. Both took a surprisingly long time to cook. And both were saltier than a Morton barge crashing in Utah's most famous lake.

Beyond that, you'll no doubt be surprised to hear that the Zatarain's with its added meat was more of a meal, while the Rice-A-Roni played side dish. The Zatarain's also had some little flecks of red and green that may have been intended to represent peppers of some sort. Meanwhile, the Rice-A-Roni took on a road-worker-yellow color that was no more befitting of food than it is basketball jerseys.

Flavor wise ... there's not much to say. The Zatarain's may have been a little spicier. Or that difference might have just come from the accompanying sausage. We'll just move along.

Neither of these boxes is going to bankrupt you. The Zatarain's cost a reasonable $1.49, not factoring in its accompanying meat. Depending on what you decide to throw in there with it, you could add anything form another $2 to upwards of $5 or $6, although I have no idea why you'd waste something that expensive on rice in a box. The Rice-A-Roni proved to be much more reasonable, costing just 42 cents.

Low prices will always buoy otherwise mediocre fare, no matter how unnatural its color. Rice-A-Roni nets three-and-a-half sporks out of five. Incidentally, that ties it with its Zatarain's competitor, which I'd also score at three-and-a-half sporks.

I suppose I told you I'd pick a winner, though. A slight edge goes to Rice-A-Roni owing to its lower price and recipe that doesn't think outside the box. Take heart, San Francisco! At least you won something this week! As for you, New Orleans, don't hang your head. Zatarain's had enough power to keep me coming back for more in the future.

February 7, 2013

Potato and scallion Super Bowl soup

The consistency of my potato and scallion soup wasn't bad for a guy without a blender.
We'll continue my Super Bowl recaps today with a bit of a "souper bowl" rundown of the potato and scallion soup that came out of the pot piping hot.

Remember this soup is a slightly modified version of a Food Network leek and potato soup discovered by the official fiancée of Rick's Food Critique. I didn't have leeks on hand, but I did have a fair share of extra scallions left over from my Baltimore imitation crab cakes. Those scallions had to go somewhere, and a soup seemed as good a place as any.

Preparation started out with no major hiccups. I sliced my scallions, started cooking them in butter, and turned away to finish chopping up potatoes. I'd already peeled the spuds, a time-consuming endeavor that left me feeling a little lazy, like Beetle Bailey.

Laziness can be deadly in the kitchen. In my case, it almost led to a scallion disaster. When I returned to my little green onions, I found brown butter that was starting to smoke and vegetables best described as "well done."

To put it mildly, this posed a problem. Since I used excess scallions for my soup, I didn't have any more available for starting over. Going to the store was an option, I suppose, but I didn't consider it an attractive one. Then I would have had extra scallions, saddling me with the very same issue that led me to attempt this soup in the first place.

After a moment of panicked stirring, frantic burner killing and thoughtful reading of my ingredient list, I made a decision: carry on. The scallions didn't seem too badly toasted, and there would hopefully be enough vegetable stock, cream and buttermilk to cover up any unpleasant flavors.

About 45 minutes later -- after I'd poured in the potatoes and stock and set it all to simmer -- another challenge presented itself. This time the recipe called for an immersion blender, a little piece of equipment with which I wasn't blessed. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn't even have a regular blender handy. So I pulled out the potato masher and whisk and did all the blending manually. Fortunately it proved to be easier going than mashed potatoes, which I often make by hand.

With some dairy products and seasoning, the soup was complete. All that was left was tasting it. And what a taste!

My potato and scallion soup turned out to be roughly akin to a liquid baked potato. It had a substantial savoriness to it, which I'm attributing to the well-done scallions. My theory is that it wouldn't have tasted as good without that happy mistake.

Having said that, there are two potential improvements I'd like to try with this recipe in the future. The first is the introduction of bacon into the soup. The second is a dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheddar cheese on top. With those ingredients, it really would be a baked potato in a bowl. And that's something that could pick up some yardage in culinary circles.

February 4, 2013

Baltimore imitation crab cakes

If the day after Christmas is Boxing Day, the day after the Super Bowl needs to be Leftover Day. It could be the official date set aside for feasting on cold pizza, reheated chicken wings, stale chips and twice-grilled bratwurst.

Already, the 24 hours after the big game constitute the unrecognized day for recirculated goodies to make their trip down America's collective gullet. Take my experience: I opened the refrigerator to pull out something for dinner and found myself confronted with the culinary pleasure of day-old crab cakes.

Which reminds me ... I'm supposed to be sharing my experiences with said crab cakes. Well, there's no time like the present, is there?

Loyal readers will remember I planned to make Baltimore imitation crab cakes, Rice-A-Roni and  Zatarain's for the NFL's championship game, along with potato and scallion soup before it. Rundowns of the other foods will follow. Today I'm focused on the crab cakes.

I won't regurgitate the entire crab cake formula, as I trust my interested readers are smart enough to click on recipe hyperlinks like this one. Instead, I want to highlight one specific ingredient in yesterday's crab cakes, one that set them apart.

No, not the imitation crab. If you must know, the poser meat blended in fine. It didn't match the flavor or texture of genuine fresh crab, but I'm in landlocked Syracuse, so none of the crab I could get was going to be out-of-the-bay fresh. I stand by my decision to save $25.50 and go with the stand-in, thank you very much.

The most valuable ingredient in the Baltimore imitation crab cakes was the jalapeno pepper. It imparted a hearty crunch unmatched by the pushover chives and scallions that stand alone in lesser crab cakes. Oh, and you may have heard that jalapenos are spicy, too. So the pepper blessed the cakes with a blast of heat better than that behind the ball on a well-thrown slant route.

My recommendation is to eschew the measly half pepper called for in the linked recipe. Go with a full pepper, which is hardly overpowering. Anything less would just get lost amid the Old Bay seasoning and Dijon mustard.

Aside from the pepper and the imitation crab, I didn't deviate from the prescribed formula. Oh, I decided not to bother with the nonsense about lining a plate with lettuce, either. In retrospect, I wouldn't argue with anyone who did -- wrapping one of these bad boys in a lettuce leaf would have been a tasty take on a crab cake burrito.

To be honest, my crab cakes could have used a wrapper. They didn't reach the crumblage level of the 49ers first-half defense, but they didn't emerge from the frying pan with all their chunks intact, either. The recipe calls for chilling the cakes a minimum of 10 minutes, presumably to promote adhesion of the disparate parts. Take my word for it and double that. Actually, I doubled it and didn't exactly experience resounding success. Triple it. Quadruple it.

They don't look like much -- let's see you try to get a good golden finish on a cake falling apart like this -- but these Baltimore imitation crab cakes packed enough flavor to bring home a championship.
When I make these Baltimore imitation crab cakes in the future -- and I will -- I may also use more than one egg in an attempt to help hold the ingredients together. Or superglue. There has to be something out there that will work.

Even if there isn't, even if I'm doomed to a fate of fragmentation every time I make this recipe, I will turn to it time after time. The savory flavors mesh ever so well with the spicy pepper, and the meat/bread crumb balance is much better than the doughy messes restaurants try to serve to skimp on their imitation crab. I'll never order a restaurant crab cake again after these.

Unless, of course, the restaurant crab cake is made with genuine meat. Even though I won't be buying the stuff directly any time soon, it would be nice to try a Baltimore genuine crab cake someday.

February 2, 2013

Super Bowl XLVII preview

Super Bowl XLVII is tomorrow, and the unofficial American holiday that is the National Football League's championship weekend is in full swing. The Internet is awash with stories previewing the big game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.

There are in-depth strategic and statistical previews. There are two-and-a-half-minute video previews that somehow say nothing. There are even stories written with second-grade sentence structure about drugged-up reporters at Super Bowl Media Day!

I won't be getting into any of that, though. Especially the drugs. This blog strives to be more family friendly than your average Super Bowl halftime show. And unlike the Super Bowl halftime show, this blog aims to be something you can pay attention to without wanting to vomit or put your head through a wall.

To that end, today's Super Bowl XLVII preview takes a hard look at the foods I'm planning to cook for Sunday night. My idea is a simple one: put together a meal representing the cities battling for the Lombardi Trophy.

Baltimore posed no problem for this quest. The city on the Chesapeake Bay is nearly synonymous with crab cakes. San Francisco, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more of a challenge. Maybe it's because I'm on the East Coast, but I never associated any food with the Bay Area except Rice-A-Roni. And I wanted something more challenging.

Eventually, I settled on bread called San Francisco sourdough. You probably guessed its basic formula. It's sourdough from San Francisco. So, armed with printed blueprints for bread and crab cakes, I set out for the grocery store last night to purchase the required ingredients.

As is often the case in this imperfect and unpredictable life, things did not go as planned. It was all sunshine and rainbows as I made my way through the produce section, successfully purchasing scallions, a jalapeno and chives for the crab cakes. I even picked up the panko -- Japanese bread crumbs -- without issue.

Then I came to the seafood section and the sticker shock it brings. Have you seen the price of crab lately? It's enough to make anyone crabby! I think something fishy is going on with the seafood industry, where the suppliers, fishermen and grocery stores are swimming together to scale up the price of crab meat.

Buying crab will put you in a financial pinch.

... Sorry about that last paragraph. It's just too hard to resist fish puns. The fact remains that I was faced with a serious problem, however. Crab meat came with a price tag of $28.99, which was awfully hard to swallow. And it was even harder to force down the gullet when I noticed the pack of imitation crab lurking a few shelves down for just $3.49.

If you don't know which option I went with, you haven't been reading this blog long enough. Into the cart went the fake stuff, and my plot for Baltimore crab cakes suddenly became one for Baltimore imitation crab cakes. The change probably won't be noticeable what with all the seasoning that goes into the recipe anyway, right?


Another problem popped up in the mustard section. I was 99 percent sure I had the Dijon mustard required for the crab cakes sitting in the refrigerator at home. Alas, that level of certainty wasn't good enough, and I had to pick up a whole new yellow bottle. (Returning home I would find Dijon mustard tucked safely in the door of the fridge, so if anyone has some good recipes that use it, I'm all ears.)

Ah, mustard! Present in the fridge, if not my memory.

Those crab cake issues were nothing compared to the challenges posed by San Francisco sourdough. I'd shrewdly used the Wegmans website to look up the location of yeast before I hit the store. It told me to search in the dairy section. Which I did. Unsuccessfully. After about five minutes of perusing, I gave up, resolving to circle back after locating the rest of the necessary baking goods.

Then I couldn't find any sourdough starter to save my life. After the yeast's refusal to rise into my field of view, this was too much. Like an overworked stay-at-home parent, I had to scrap my idea for homemade bread and turn to a box of Rice-A-Roni to save me.

Next to the Rice-A-Roni, I spied some Zatarain's, which claims to be a New Orleans tradition since 1889. New Orleans happens to be the city hosting the Super Bowl this year, so the Zatarain's went into the cart beside the San Francisco treat. A new plan came to mind, one pitting the prefabricated rice dishes against each other.

As I wrapped up my planned shopping, I realized I was going to have a lot of scallions left over from my crab cake cooking. Scallions, in case you were unawares, are similar to leeks. Therefore, I decided to do a riff on a potato and leek soup, too.
A quick phone-call assist from Deb, the official fiancée of Rick's Food Critique, gave me a list of the other ingredients I'd need. Yukon gold potatoes. Heavy cream. Buttermilk. Vegetable broth. Just like that, after 90 minutes, my pre-Super Bowl grocering was complete.

There's your preview of what I'll be eating on Super Bowl Sunday: Baltimore imitation crab cakes, Rice-A-Roni, Zatarain's and potato and scallion soup. A balanced meal it does not make, although I'd wager it will be tasty.

This is also a preview of the blog posts you can expect in the coming week. While time won't permit me to reflect upon my culinary successes and failures on this site tomorrow, you'll see new posts on each of the foods in the following days. Currently I plan one post covering the crab cakes, another swishing around the soup and a third declaring a winner between the two boxes of rice.

I hope you get a kick out of all of them. And enjoy the game!